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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Free Stats: StatCounter versus Google Analytics

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By Andy Atkinson.
For Vietnameses, you can read here for using StatCounter.
I'm using both stats, however, according to me, google analytic is more interesting.
Read the article of Andy Atkinson for comments about these two free stats.

If you’ve got a personal website or blog and don’t have the money to spend on an advanced statistics package, you want to find the best free stats package out there to find out where your visitors are coming from and what they are looking for.

The free solution I have been using for over a year is StatCounter, mostly because it permitted free usage with an invisible “hit counter.” Another popular service called SiteMeter forces you to place a small icon on your website. While I preferred the way that SiteMeter presented visitor locations, the SiteMeter icon did not look professional and did not fit with the theme of my website.

Since Google recently made their Urchin statistics software free and changed its name to Google Analytics, I was curious to run both Analytics and StatCounter simultaneously and determine which free service I preferred. Read on to learn more about both services, such as things like “Projects”, “Goals” and “Defined Funnels”. By the end of the comparison review, you should be able to determine which service will be better for your site.

StatCounter

As I already mentioned, you might not have a budget for stats when your site is small. If your site is generating revenue however, you will likely want to create a budget for better statistics. Free statistics are a stopgap measure for some, while others rely on them exclusively. StatCounter lets you grow with it as your budget grows, by letting you increase the number of highly-detailed statistics that are logged to their servers. As they say on their Services page, they log 250,000 page loads per month for you (including unique visitors, first-time visitors, and returning visitors) for free, which should be more than enough for most sites, but only give you detailed information about your visitors for the last 100 page loads. If you decide to upgrade, you can increase the number of highly-detailed page loads depending on how much per month you want to spend (there are three options ranging from US $9 to $29 per month).

100 page loads might be enough for you, but you won’t get detailed historical data, and thus your top pages, top referrers, and other detailed information will only be relevant for the last few days (depending on the size of your site, this could be the last couple hours or minutes). Basically, if you check your StatCounter account religiously, you’ll get a good snapshot view of your site, but historical information will be left up to you to remember, and won’t be available to query.

So what do you get for free?

Well you get just about everything you would in the paid version, its just that detailed information from hosts connecting to your site will only be stored for the last 100 page loads. This could generate really interesting data, or show a very limited set of information, depending on usage. For example, if you have multi-page articles, each page of the article will be logged as a different page visit, so you will blow through the free log size rather quickly. There are more complications if your visitors are coming from AOL or a dynamic web proxy as this quote from the StatCounter page indicates:

To make up for relying on cookies in the summary stats, the rest of the stats are based on your detailed log analysis of the last xxx number of pageloads. The uniqueness in this case is based on your visitors’ IP addresses. This method works very well for the majority, but yet again there is an exception. AOL users, and visitors who use what is known as a ‘dynamic web proxy’ that changes each time they access a webpage. So if a single AOL user visits 7 webpages on your website it will likely come up as 7 different IP addresses!

StatCounter lets you pick from a couple of different graph styles, and lets you export your statistics as an Excel or CSV file. Analytics has a Flash interface, and thus feels more modern than StatCounter, but this is mostly aesthetics and doesn’t really cut into the usability of the service. In fact, StatCounter has a lot of features. Due to the way the user interface resembles advertisements, you will be discovering new features as you cautiously click around in the interface.

StatCounter allows you to email statistical reports to arbitrary email addresses. This could be useful to send emails to contributors to your site that aren’t involved in site administration, but might be interested in seeing how their contribution to the site has performed.

If you are having trouble understanding a certain feature, or want to generate some interest in a new feature, StatCounter has an active Forum where you can post these things and more. Annoyingly they don’t have authentication hooked up to the same database as StatCounter, which means you’ll have to sign-up for another account to access the forums, but they are there if you need them. While I can’t say for sure, I’ll bet it is a lot easier to ask for help or make a feature request to StatCounter than it would be to Google regarding Analytics.

Projects and Access Control

If your contributors would prefer to not receive email reports, you can create an account for them and give them access to certain “Projects.” StatCounter lets you create arbitrary “Projects,” which are usually different websites you have that you want to track. You can generate customized JavaScript to place on your various sites, but still manage them all under one StatCounter account. For example, you might create a Project for your business website, your personal blog, or your photo gallery.

If you upgrade your detailed-visitor log size, you are given a quota that you can apply across your different projects at your discretion. For example, you might want to decrease the log size of your personal site in order to free up some more space for your business website. This capability is supported under “Adjust Log” from the “My Projects” page.

The bottom line here is that you get a free account that is easy to create, and lets you customize a piece of JavaScript you can put on the webpages you want to track to create an invisible “counter” for your site. If you want a visible counter, they offer that too.

Google Analytics

From the first time I used Google Analytics it was clear to me that it is all about presenting AdWords and AdSense information in a new way to give you more control over your advertising campaigns. This is an excellent idea for Google who possesses an enormously-popular advertising infrastructure that lets you either advertise your site (AdWords) or monetize your content by displaying advertisements (AdSense). That being said, there is some very useful information in Analytics that StatCounter doesn’t provide.

Analytics requires that you have Flash installed in your browser. Once installed, Analytics offers some fancy charts that update themselves without refreshing the page, making it feel like a faster application than StatCounter.

Analytics lets you sort visits to your site from paid search engine listings, direct visits from people entering your URL directly into their browser, or from unpaid search engine listings. StatCounter has a category for different search engines, but doesn’t sort out paid entries from unpaid categories automatically. This information can be found in what they call the “Marketing Summary.”

Dashboards

Analytics organizes your statistics into four Dashboards which are aimed at displaying statistics that are relevant to different types of people that run a website (Marketing, Managers, etc.). StatCounter by comparison lumps your statistics together, but is less advertising-centric so it really is a different approach. If you have multiple websites you want to track with StatCounter, you can do this by setting up different Projects, but this is slightly different than Dashboards. The Dashboards approach might be confusing the first time you use Analytics, so you will need to poke around and figure out which statistics are most relevant for you. Basically this is just another way of reorganizing the same information.

Export Your Stats

Analytics lets you export your statistics as a tab separated value text file, XML file, or an Excel comma-separated value file. It also gives you a convenient print option that gives you a printer-friendly view of whatever page you are on, even free of advertisements. StatCounter does not support XML file exports, and there is no printer-friendly view created automatically for you.

“Goals”

Goals are a big part of Analytics, but might be confusing to new users.

A goal is a website page which a visitor reaches once they have made a purchase or completed another desired action, such as a registration or download.

The Defined Funnel, or Conversion Funnel, is the sequence of pages you want your visitors to take on their way to accomplishing a Goal. This sounds like a neat feature, because you will be able to track at what point in the defined funnel your visitors leave your website. Armed with that information, you can improve the pages or steps that make up your defined funnel to improve visitor retention. If you have a confusing UI and are able to improve it, you could track those changes and quantify the improvement you made for your website.

The Analytics help information also defines a Goal Value, which your organization can define based on internal criteria, such as the percentage of contact requests visitors make that you are able to turn into e-commerce sales. The Goal Value could also be something dynamic, like a percentage of the total sales value of a “shopping cart.”

These features seem very useful for an e-commerce site (any site that sells something), but useless for personal sites or small websites where e-commerce is not the focus. You will definitely want to spend some time taking advantage of the Goals features if you are selling a product or service. If your site is new, you will be able to add additional tags to HTML elements early and get even richer stats from Analytics.

Tracking downloads

For those that are really intrigued by Urchin/Analytics statistics, you can add JavaScript to your links to give you additional tracking information.

Google Analytics provides an easy way to track clicks on links that lead to file downloads. Because these links do not lead to a page on your site containing the tracking code, you’ll need to tag the link itself with the urchinTracker JavaScript if you would like to track these downloads.

You can also track Banner Ad exits, Flash events, and JavaScript events. In order to take advantage of this extra functionality, you will have to actually add some code to your HTML, which may or may not be something you are willing to do for the benefits you would gain. There are certainly lots of features that Analytics/Urchin provides that you can “grow into” should you decide to allocate the time down the road.

Custom Filters

An interesting feature of Analytics is that users can create regular expressions to perform customized tracking, such as removing certain pages from statistics results, or tracking certain files differently. Some web developers will welcome this inclusion because they might already have regular expressions they are using for validation or other tasks. There is a lot of research and documentation around regular expressions, which should help you if you choose to incorporate this functionality into your site.

Feature Request

One feature that neither has is an RSS feed or FireFox extension presenting a select few of the most interesting statistics. This would be a nice feature, but would negatively affect the performance of advertising that Google places on its own Analytics site, or the advertising revenue StatCounter generates from its site. This would be a nice way to stay current on statistics much like the AdSense Firefox extension keeps you current on advertising statistics.

Alternatives?

If you want to spend some green (pun intended), I have seen a number of people say they are very happy with Mint, a commercial statistics package that costs US $30 per site. Shaun Inman is the developer, and has an active blog if you want to read more about him or the product. One nice thing is that he provides an API that other developers can use to add functionality to Mint.

Most web hosts will provide some statistics, usually something like AWStats, Analog, or Webalizer. I’ve found that I use these all in conjunction with StatCounter and Analytics since they all offer something slightly different.

If you’ve got a Microsoft site, I’ve used MetaTraffic quite a bit and found it to have a slick interface and to be very useful. You’ll need to hook it up to an Access or MS SQL database, but this lets you do lots of complex queries. If you have a personal site that does not engage in business activities (check their license agreement) or your website is part of a non-profit organization, you can use this product for free. Paid licenses range from $50 to $1250 depending on your needs, and there is a 30-day free trial.

Similarities

  • Free (100 detailed page views for StatCounter, 5 million page views for Analytics**)
  • Can export statistics as an Microsoft Excel file, or CSV file
  • Web-based statistics means you don’t have to worry about installation and maintenance
  • Both generate JavaScript that you must copy to all web pages you want to track
For Analytics users with AdWords accounts, Analytics gives you unlimited pageview tracking.

Differences
  • Analytics sorts statistics by categories (Marketing, Conversion, etc.) where StatCounter statistics are all selectable from one column (this could be useful or confusing depending on your website)
  • Analytics has a much nicer looking Flash interface
  • StatCounter supports a paid version with a handful of additional features
  • StatCounter has an active forum where you can ask questions, report bugs, and request features
  • Analytics supports XML file export and StatCounter does not
  • The JavaScript that StatCounter provides can be customized to show different types of counters or an invisible counter (Analytics JavaScript cannot be customized
Conclusion

If you don’t have an AdWords account or do e-commerce on your website, there are a lot of features of Analytics that you won’t be able to use, so I recommend StatCounter. If you want to really dig in to statistics and create “Defined Funnels” and “Goals,” or if you conduct e-commerce on your site, then you definitely want to setup an Analytics account and explore some of the detailed features. The advanced features of Analytics will require additional coding for many files on your site, but they will ultimately produce detailed statistics that you just won’t be able to find elsewhere for free. Who else has the advertising monetization infrastructure in place and can afford to give software like this away for free but Google?

1 comments:

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